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The (national) culture of cultural heritage

29 September, 2009

Some time ago, MAA alumnus Jesse Dart sent in this article from by Phillip Rothstein on the concept of “cultural property” and the way it has changed in significance since it was introduced by UNESCO in 1954.  Although the article is mainly focused on the impact of the concept on archaeology, there is a lot of interest for anthropologists, too.

Rothstein reviews Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage by James Cuno.  He notes the key argument that while the idea of “cultural property” was introduced in order to protect, retain and make available certain objects, sites, buildings etc as the “cultural heritage of all mankind”, it has instead come to be used in an increasingly parochial sense, to restrict access to and control over objects of cultural significance.

Of particular interest to me was the argument that modern states are increasingly defining themselves as the rightful owners of “cultural property”, even when these claims involve an anachronistic projection of the contemporary state into the past.  From the article:

The idea of cultural property has become a political trump card. At a conference in Athens in March, organized in part by a Unesco intergovernmental committee, the concept expanded even further: “Certain categories of cultural property are irrevocably identified by reference to the cultural context in which they were created (unique and exceptional artworks and monuments, ritual objects, national symbols, ancestral remains, dismembered pieces of outstanding works of art). It is their original context that gives them their authenticity and unique value.”

Those artworks, objects, symbols and relics do not just merit protection; they should be “returned” to their “countries of origin,” the only places, supposedly, where they can be fully appreciated. This has nothing to do with whether they were obtained illicitly or inappropriately.

The countries of origin, of course, are modern states, which are increasingly asserting control, a point emphasized by Mr. Cuno. In 1970 another Unesco agreement said it was “incumbent upon every state” to protect its cultural property. Cultural property — almost by definition beyond the control or disposition of individuals — is linked to the powers of the modern state and its political demands.

These are interesting points to make and it is always worth being reminded of the extent to which we take for granted the claims of nations to be the only legitimate inheritors of cultural property.  Indigenous groups have of course made ground claiming back elements of their heritage, including the remains of ancestors, from distant museums.  But nation states tend to claim heritage based on their territorialising strategies, i.e. where claims to heritage are connected with a defined territory over which exclusive sovereign rights are asserted.

In southern Thailand, where I did my fieldwork, premodern Buddhist sites are used to create a sense of the Thai nation state projected backwards in time.  In an area in which there are different and strongly contested historical sensibilities, between Thai Buddhist and Malay Muslim, this use of cultural heritage is highly political.  Similarly, the current stoush betweeen Thailand and Cambodia over the ownership of a Hindu/Khmer temple, Preah Vihear ( see here for a decent archive of stories about the conflict), illustrates the way claims to cultural heritage and claims to territory are intrinsically linked.  This case also provides an example of the way in which the “universal” UNESCO model of cultural heritage, which admonishes states to protect their heritage “for the benefit of mankind”, may contribute to the parochial claims of states against their rivals.  Indeed, the catalyst for the current crisis was precisely a UNESCO statement which reaffirmed a 1962 ruling of the International Court of Justice  granting Cambodia possession of the site.  (As a side note, a fascinating detail of this case occurred in 1963 when Thailand finally backed down after initially disputing the 1962 ruling. Rather than lowering the Thai flag that had been flying over the temple soldiers dug up the flag pole with the flag still flying, removed it from the site, and reinstalled it at another location in Thailand).

As Benedict Anderson noted, the imagined community of the nation state is imagined to be both sovereign and limited.  Correspondingly, in the national imaginary cultural heritage must also be limited, and sovereignty over it must be exclusive.   According to this zero sum mentality, a gain for one nation must necessarily entail a loss for another.

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